8 Days in North Korea

Welcome to the world’s most isolated civilization

In September 2015, I traveled to North Korea to see, first-hand, what life was like inside the Hermit Kingdom. Much of the country was what I had expected: strange, ersatz, thick with propaganda, and every so often, seriously unsettling.

And yet, the journey was also filled with some truly wonderful, completely unexpected surprises. One thing’s for sure: North Korea really is unlike any other place on Earth.

Since my return, I’ve had a lot of people, friends and strangers, ask me about my trip. There has been way more curiosity about North Korea than I would have imagined — so much so, that I thought I’d write down some of my experiences, and share them with you here.

Pictures and stories alone can’t do justice to what it’s really like being on the ground in North Korea. As a visitor, you’re watched 24/7, you have no freedom, and you’re constantly tense and on edge. But hopefully, this post will at least give you a glimpse into what life is like in one of the most restricted, enigmatic destinations in the world.

Departure Day

My journey began with mixed feelings of trepidation, excitement, and unbridled curiosity. With my visa in hand, I boarded North Korea’s national air carrier, Air Koryo — the lowest-ranked airline in the world, and the only carrier to have a one star safety rating with SkyTrax.

My North Korean visa card (left); Air Koryo, Korea’s national air carrier (right)

On board, we filled out a rather ominous customs declaration, where we were reminded not to bring in any killing devices, poison, “historical and cultural wealth,” “publishings of any kind,” or “cell phone and other communication means.” We were seriously about to go off the grid.

DPRK Customs Declaration Form

We were fed a peculiar hamburger made from mystery meat, and subjected to our very first taste of North Korean propaganda.

Mystery meat hamburger (left); In-flight propaganda (right)

Our in-flight magazine had articles with headlines like:

Local Elections Display the Invincible Might of DPRK Government

which referred to Kim Jong Un with a very official-sounding title that took up nearly a whole paragraph:

Kim Jong Un, First Secretary of the WPK, First Chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army

Throughout the entire flight, TV monitors overhead played non-stop propaganda videos, featuring an all-female rock group called Moranbong. These women are the North Korean equivalent of U2. Each band member was hand-picked by Kim Jong Un.

The video was apparently filmed live in a massive auditorium, filled with expressionless men all dressed in identical military uniforms, sitting stiff and upright. They all remained frozen in their seats, motionless, until an enormous image of Kim Jong Un was projected onto a giant screen behind the rock band, at which point, all the men would commence applauding robotically in unison. They wouldn’t stop clapping until the image came down.

We were prohibited from taking photos or videos on the plane, but I did manage to sneak this short video when the stewardesses weren’t looking:

Non-stop rock band propaganda video aboard my Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang

Arrival

Pyongyang Airport was not at all what I had expected. The airport was relatively modern-looking and clean. I was a bit nervous going through passport control, but that turned out to be pretty uneventful.

Everyone did have to go through special luggage screening in order to enter the country, and that’s where things got a bit more interesting.

I was bringing a fair bit of photography equipment with me: two cameras, a portable hard drive, lens filters, a bunch of spare batteries, and lots of extra memory cards. Upon seeing all this camera gear, security guards pulled me out of line and escorted me to a walled off, secondary security area, where they closely examined all my equipment.

I also had a smartphone and tablet with me, and had to hand these over for inspection. North Korea now records the serial numbers for all smartphones brought into the country. I watched as a security guard entered my devices’ digits into a log book, before he handed them back to me.

The government is particularly paranoid about foreigners bringing in any kind of literature that could be used to influence their people (e.g., the Bible). Finding nothing offensive in my bags, or stored on my memory cards, I was finally permitted to enter the country.

As it turned out, a lot of what I had previously read about North Korea was true. You are assigned government-trained “minders” who are with you 24/7. They monitor your activities, manage your itinerary, and tell you what you can and cannot do. You are in their custody for the entirety of the trip. There are always at least 2 minders assigned to a group, because the minders also have to mind each other, making sure their comrades don’t succumb to the devious devilry of us American imperialists. No joke.


The Rules

Before our shuttle had even left the airport parking lot, our minders were already beginning to walk us through all the rules we had to obey, including:

  1. We must always travel in a group. For the entire trip, we almost never got to walk around outside. Instead, we were bused from place to place, even if we were only traveling 4 blocks. You’re definitely not allowed to do things like leave the hotel at night or explore the city on your own
  2. No photos of military sites or soldiers. This often proved to be difficult, given that nearly 40% of North Korea’s population serves in the military
  3. No photos of construction sites or any people at work. The government wants the world to see their country represented only by pristine pictures of perfection. Photographs of half-finished buildings and sweaty laborers apparently don’t make the cut
  4. If you take pictures of any of their Dear Leaders, you have to capture their whole figure. You can’t crop out any part of their bodies
  5. If you have any printed materials depicting the Dear Leaders (e.g., newspapers, magazine), you can’t crease their images. You also can’t throw these materials in the garbage, or use them as wrapping paper
  6. Whenever you visit a statue of a Dear Leader, your group will need to line up single-file in front of it, and bow. Your hands must be at your side; not in your pockets or behind your back
Young soldiers lining up to bow in front of massive statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

The Facade

The North Korean government begrudgingly welcomes only a handful of tourists into its country each year, and it does so with a tremendous amount of fear and distrust.

To cope with these foreign visitors, North Korea has constructed an elaborate facade, designed to make the country look prosperous and flourishing

Many of the sites we visited and interactions we had were blatantly staged. At times, the country’s attempts at portraying perfection were so contrived, it was comical. At other times, the fakery was just downright unsettling.

However, every so often, you come across a crack in the facade, and in that fleeting moment, you catch a glimpse into the real North Korea (or at least a slightly less fabricated version). For me, those were some of the most memorable moments of my trip.

Below, I’ll share some of those moments, and in doing so, do my best to present a balanced view of what I saw on my visit: the good and the bad, the outlandish and the beautiful, the pageantry and simple, ordinary life.


Propaganda

The first thing you notice as soon as you pull out of the airport is the propaganda. It’s literally everywhere. Every street intersection, every building, every subway station, and even every subway car proudly displays portraits of the nation’s Dear Leaders. Banners and giant murals extol the virtues of North Korea and Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology around self-reliance.

Propaganda is everywhere in North Korea

The country has propaganda vans trolling the streets with giant megaphones perched on their rooftops.

Propaganda van

Every morning, at 6:30am, you awake to the delightful wake-up call of propaganda music blaring into your windows from the streets.

Early morning propaganda wake-up call

Even the people themselves are part of the propaganda machine. Nearly every North Korean wears a red pin patriotically emblazoned with the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I tried really hard to lay my hands on one of these pins, but tourists aren’t allowed to have them. They have to be earned through loyal servitude.

Everyone in Pyongyang wears a red pin with their Dear Leaders’ portraits

Even at work, there’s no escaping the propaganda. Factories, like this textile plant we visited, had propaganda posters plastered all over the inside and outside of the factory walls.

Propaganda inside and outside at North Korea’s largest textile factory

What was perhaps scariest though, was the propaganda we found inside the nation’s schools. During our trip, we visited two schools: 1) a primary school in Pyongsong, a small, provincial city north of Pyongyang, and 2) the Children’s Palace, a school in the capital city for gifted children. What we saw on the walls of these institutions was disturbing — gruesome images of war, killing, and death, side-by-side with Disney-like portraits of the Dear Leaders adoring (and being adored by) children.

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un with children in North Korean schools
War propaganda on the walls of a primary school in Pyongsong, North Korea

On one of the war murals, the school administration had even covered up specific photos in advance of our arrival. Given how graphic the visible parts of the mural already were, I can only imagine what was hidden underneath. I asked our minder about these pieces of paper, and she sidestepped the question, saying that they were probably just touching up parts of the mural.

War mural in a North Korean primary school. If this is what we were allowed to see, I can only imagine what was hidden underneath those pieces of paper.

Our Gilded Prison

Because we weren’t allowed to leave our hotels at night, we got to know our hotels very well. We called them our gilded prisons. Thankfully, all of these hotels had some type of bar, and, as it turns out, North Korean beer is really quite good. So, most evenings, we just relaxed at the hotel bar, and bonded with other adventurous travelers and a very select group of locals who’ve been pre-approved by the government to mingle with foreigners.

Shooting pool with locals at the Koryo Hotel (left); North Korean beer was quite tasty (right)

In Pyongyang, we stayed at the Koryo Hotel. It’s one of the top hotels in North Korea, and equivalent to a 3-star hotel in the US. There was a huge fire in this hotel just a couple months ago, and a few tourists were arrested for taking photos of that fire. I don’t know what became of them, but one thing was for sure though, I was going to have to be extra careful with my photography.

The Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang (left); The hotel’s main lobby (right)

The hotel lobby had this over-the-top, tacky Vegas feel to it, and the rooms were really dated. Here is a video tour I shot of the hotel:

Video tour of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang

The Koryo hotel is the second-largest in North Korea, and has 43 stories. That’s a lot of floors, particularly for a hotel that didn’t seem all that busy. I noticed that most of the guests were all clustered on just a couple of the floors. So, one night, I decided to go explore the other hotel floors. I found myself wandering around some really creepy, abandoned hallways that were completely pitch black. Check it out:

Creepy empty floors in Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel

The Pyongyang Elite

Living in Pyongyang is like living in The Capitol in The Hunger Games. Only the elite are allowed in. Out of the whole country, the propaganda here is the loudest, the love for the Dear Leaders is the most passionate, and life is as good as it gets in North Korea.

If you’re living in Pyongyang, you are the 1%

And with this status comes privilege that you won’t find elsewhere in the country:

  1. You’re given free housing in high-rise apartments in return for loyalty and service to the country.
High-rise housing in Pyongyang

2. You have access to grocery stores that are stocked with Nutella, Oreos, Absolut Vodka, and… jelly shoes. Some of these pictures are a bit blurry, because you’re not allowed to take pictures inside any of the country’s stores. So, I had to get creative with my photography.

Products were arranged in perfect rows, and shelves were fully stocked. Everything was designed to show bountifulness and prosperity.

Notice in the top picture how many security cameras are hanging from the ceiling. There was more surveillance in this small grocery store than in my bank back home in the US.

Grocery stores for the Pyongyang elites

3. You get to ride on Soviet subways.

Pyongyang’s subway network

4. You get to use a smartphone.

I was surprised by how many people in Pyongyang had cellphones (left); My minder’s Korean-made Arirang smartphone (right)

5. You even get to go to amusement parks and water parks on the weekend.

An enormous water park in Pyongyang
Amusement park (left); Bowling alley (right)
Posing with a rocket (left); Evening Fun Fair (right)

Clearly, what we saw in Pyongyang was definitely not representative of what life is like for most North Koreans. But even still, this was better living than what I had initially expected to see in the city.


A Soviet Concrete Jungle

Overall, Pyongyang was much more developed than what I had imagined.

Pyongyang from above

Sure, most of the city was comprised of drab, Soviet-style buildings — hulking Lego blocks of faceless concrete. But the sheer scale of it all was greater than what I had anticipated.

Soviet-style buildings in Pyongyang

From afar, there were even parts of the city that were quite picturesque.

Taedong River as seen from the top of Juche Tower

But that beauty quickly faded as you peered just a little bit more closely. Upon closer inspection, you find yourself staring at a cityscape that was all too often rickety and raw.

Close up of an apartment complex in Pyongyang
Pyongyang skyline at sunset

Abandoned construction sites littered the city, leaving Pyongyang pockmarked with ghostly scaffolds, and half-constructed buildings.

Abandoned construction sites in Pyongyang

Perhaps the most famous unfinished construction project is the Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest building in North Korea. Construction began in 1987, and the building remains unfinished and unopened to this day.

Fun fact: the North Korean elites love revolving restaurants. They’re seen as a must-have for any high-end, luxury hotel. The top two hotels in Pyongyang — the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel — both have one. So, to ensure its supremacy in the world of hospitality, the Ryugyong Hotel was designed to have not one, not two, but FIVE revolving restaurants! You can see them in the cylindrical cone at the top of the tower in the photos below.

The Ryugyong Hotel, the tallest building in North Korea (though still unfinished and unoccupied since 1987)

Working Life

During our visit, we had a chance to visit a number of different workplaces, and all of them were just a little bit strange.


The Textile Factory

One of our first visits was to North Korea’s largest textile factory. All the workers here were women, and it seemed like their lives basically revolved around this factory complex. This work site was like a school campus. It had dorms, convenience stores, and even a small library.

Workers in North Korea’s largest textile factory

The convenience store had all your basic living essentials, including some really uncomfortable-looking cardboard toilet paper.

Convenience store and library at a textile factory dorm

The dorm rooms were very basic. Women slept 7 to a room, and they were literally packed in like sardines, with their beds stacked side-by-side-by-side. The beaming portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung overhead.

They had prepared a model dorm room for us to see (the same one that Kim Jong Un was shown when he came to tour this factory, we were proudly told). When we were ushered inside, there was a woman fast asleep on one of the beds. This was pretty awkward, but our hosts didn’t seem to think so.

Our factory guide also proudly told us that Marshall Kim Jong Un himself personally picked out the paint color for the dorm walls (pink) and the wallpaper (some kind of a peach-taupe concoction).

Our textile factory guide
Textile factory dorm rooms

The textile factory also had a small museum attached to it, which chronicled not so much the history of fabrics in North Korea, but rather every visit their Dear Leaders had paid to their workplace. A giant plaque in the main lobby listed the date of every visit. In fact, pretty much every business we went to in North Korea began their tour by talking about how many times their Dear Leaders had graced them with their presence. This was clearly a very big deal for them.

Museum exhibit displaying all the gifts the Dear Leaders have bestowed upon the factory

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but one exhibit in particular caught my eye, and I decided that it had to be shared with the world. So, when our tour guide wasn’t looking, I quickly snapped a picture.

It was a series of photographs celebrating all the gifts the Dear Leaders have bestowed upon this factory and its workers over the years — tokens of gratitude for all their hard work: oranges, buses, and scarves.

When our tour guide mentioned the scarves, I couldn’t help but question the irony. As politely as I could, I asked our tour guide:

Me: Did the Dear Leaders gift back to these women the very scarves they themselves had made?
Tour Guide: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Me: Were these scarves made in this factory?
<Long pause>
Tour Guide: I don’t think so.
<An even longer, awkward pause>
Tour Guide: Actually, these scarves were made in a different factory. In Kaesong maybe. Let’s move on.

I see, thank you. That was very convincing. Yes, let’s move on.


The Electronics Factory

I was really looking forward to this visit. We were supposed to go see an actual working electronics factory called Hana Electronics. According to the North Korea Tech blog:

[Hana Electronics] has been making, or at least assembling, DVD and Video CD players for many years. The actual level of production that goes on at the factory is unknown. The only pictures that have been issued are of what appear to be quality control stations, where finished products are checked.

So much mystery. So much excitement!

Hana Electronics Factory

Unfortunately, all that excitement went out the window when we showed up, and were brusquely told that there had been a change of plans, and that we would no longer be able to visit the factory. Apparently, the assembly line wasn’t operating that day, and they didn’t want to show us the plant when it was shut down.

Our group leader argued, but to no avail. I have a strong suspicion that this factory has never actually been operational. As far as I can tell, after doing some research online, no foreigner has ever stepped foot on the factory floor. Either way, we felt completely duped, but there was nothing we could do about it.

Instead, the company representatives said that they would be more than happy to show us their music library. I don’t think we had much choice in the matter. Regardless, what we were shown was just plain strange.

A completely empty computer room at the Hana Electronics factory

We were led onto a barren office floor filled with 100 cubicles. Each cubicle had a computer, and every computer was off, except for one that they had turned on expressly for us. We were the only people in the entire space.

On that computer, they pulled up a collection of music videos, all hand-chosen by Marshall Kim Jong Un himself. We then spent 15 minutes watching propaganda music videos on a small computer monitor. I was getting horrible flashbacks from our Air Koryo flight into Pyongyang.

The Hana Electronics theater, where Kim Jong Un himself designed the acoustics

When the videos stopped, I thought we could finally escape, but the situation only got worse. Our guide excitedly led us into another room, which turned out to be a small theater. She instructed us to sit down.

She proceeded to explain that Marshall Kim Jong Un himself designed the acoustics for this room, and personally tested different audio systems: 5.1, 7.1, and 9.1 channel setups. He ultimately settled on 5.1. Great choice Dear Marshall!

We were then subjected to another 20 minutes of music videos, but this time in all the wondrousness of Dolby surround sound. I tried to walk out halfway through, but was told to sit back down.

Apparently, Marshall Kim Jong Un really likes Sarah Brightman

The last video we had to watch was Sarah and Andrea Bocelli singing Time to Say Goodbye. I used to love that song. But now, and forever more, hearing that song will conjure memories of being trapped in this theater, and the scintillating soprano of Sarah’s voice will forever haunt me.

In the end, the closest we ever got to Hana Electronics’ alleged products was in its company store, which, conveniently, also sold teddy bears, bathing suits, and women’s face cream.

Hana Electronics company store

The Car Dealership

Another absolutely bizarre business we visited was an auto dealership in Pyongyang called Pyeonghwa Motors. Here, they allegedly sold North Korean-made cars. I say “allegedly,” because I had serious doubts about how real this whole operation was.

In fact, the entire showroom felt staged, complete with fake customers conducting fake business, and having fake conversations with fake salespeople.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out this video I shot, and judge for yourself:


The Farming Cooperative

We spent a couple days driving around the countryside, and it was clear that life out here was not as easy as in the city.

The North Korean countryside

We were taken to a cooperative farming operation on the outskirts of Kaesong, the ancient capital city of Koryo (basically a unified Korea, before the land was split into North and South).

The local guide was reasonably cordial, but he didn’t seem to know what to do with us. We took a quick walk through the fields, which was very uneventful. And then he showed us where the workers lived. I was surprised they let us see this place.

The homes were completely run-down and dilapidated. Most of the windows were barred, apparently to prevent break-ins — something the government would never admit was happening. The entrances to the homes pointed straight into their outhouses. I felt bad for anyone who would have to live here.

And that’s when you can’t help but wonder:

They would only be showing us this place if this is the best they’ve got. So, if this is the best, what does the worst look like?
Worker housing at a farming cooperative outside Kaesong

The Dear Leaders

Throughout this post, I’ve made a lot of references to The Dear Leaders. Who exactly are these men? Let me break it down for you:

  1. President Kim Il Sung — The granddaddy of The Dear Leaders. Literally. Kim Il Sung was the founding Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and is referred to as the nation’s “Eternal President.”
  2. General Kim Jong Il— Son of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il served as the DPRK’s Supreme Leader until he passed in 2011.
  3. Marshall Kim Jong Un — Son of Kim Jong Il, the 32-year old is the current Supreme Leader of the DPRK. Fun story: Kim Jong Un’s exact birthday was always shrouded in mystery until Dennis Rodman accidentally revealed the state secret after returning from a visit to North Korea in 2013.

Amongst the North Koreans we were exposed to, the Dear Leaders are revered like Gods. Everywhere you turn, there are statues, paintings, mosaics, songs, and books dedicated to the greatness of these men.

An equestrian tribute to the Dear Leaders
Paintings of the Dear Leaders

On any given day, you’ll find North Koreans making pilgrimages to giant statues of their Dear Leaders, and paying their respects by bowing deeply and laying flowers at their feet.

Young soldiers bowing to their Dear Leaders

Students will bring straw brooms, and dutifully sweep the steps leading up to their monuments.

Paying respect to the Dear Leaders (left); Students sweeping monument steps (right)

Even newlyweds will visit these sites to take pictures, and to pay tribute.

Newlyweds taking photographs at the Korean War Museum

Of the hundreds of statues we saw of the Dear Leaders, the one I loved the most was this one:

Statue of Kim Jong Il at the Pyongyang water park

I secretly shot this picture at the entrance to the Pyongyang Water Park. They literally have Kim Jong Il chillin’ on a beach scene straight out of a Katy Perry music video. Photos were strictly prohibited, and they had a guard standing there whose only job was to make sure you didn’t take photos of this statue. I had to get really clever in order to grab this photo.


The Schools

During our trip, we toured two schools: 1) a primary school in Pyongsong, a small, provincial city north of Pyongyang, and 2) the Children’s Palace, a school in the capital city for gifted children.

Both of these school visits were simultaneously touching and disturbing

On one hand, the kids were truly adorable, and some of them were really impressively talented.

Schoolchildren in North Korea

There was a young boy who started off by singing a cappella into a Madonna-esque headset. After a couple minutes, he suddenly jumped behind a drum kit, and started accompanying himself on the drums:

Boy wonder singing and drumming in a Pyongsong primary school

Then there were the 7-year old ping pong masters who crushed all of us in table tennis:

Ping pong training at a Pyongsong primary school

Across both visits, countless children who were paraded out to showcase their artistic and musical talents:

Talented young students at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang

What was so disturbing about these school visits was how meticulously choreographed and over-rehearsed the whole experience was.

These schools seemed to be just one giant theatrical production, and the child actors had no say in the matter

Perhaps some of these kids genuinely enjoyed putting on these performances. A number of them legitimately looked like they were having fun. Many others, though, had anxious, plastic smiles plastered on their faces. Either way, one thing was for sure: we were witnessing first-hand a massive propaganda machine in action.

The music the students played on their accordions and gayageum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument, was the same tune repeated over and over again, for a seemingly endless revolving door of foreign visitors. Look at the faces of these girls after they finish playing their instruments. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the look of fatigue is written all over their faces.

Gayageum performance at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang

Down the hall, in an English class, we watch as a group of children repeat the same 4 lines of text over and over again. I’m not sure they knew any other English.

English class in North Korea

Even the performances themselves, while impressive displays of talent, just felt a bit odd. Like here, in this accordion performance, the musicians’ movements just felt so… robotic.

Accordion performance at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang

Technology

Smartphones

I was surprised by how many smartphones I saw in North Korea. My minder was kind enough to let us browse around her device.

Checking out a North Korean-branded smartphone

It was a North Korean-branded device, called the Arirang, running a modification of Android Jellybean.

And believe it or not, the phone had apps! The first app our minder showed us was a Juche pocket reference guide, so you could look up Kim Il Sung’s teachings while on the go.

We then checked out a mosquito repellent app, which emitted an annoying, piercingly-high pitched tone. However, I’ll tell you what, if it really works, that’s the first app I’m going to download when I get back home.

My most favorite app, though, was what looked like the Google Drive app. I got all excited when I saw it.

Google? In North Korea?? How can this be??

I tapped on the icon, and let out a sigh of disappointment. What popped up on the screen was some Korean desktop themes app. Apparently, US trademark laws haven’t made their way into North Korea yet.

Google Drive app in North Korea!! (almost)

Encouraged by the sight of all these apps, though, I wanted to see what other kinds of apps my minder could download onto her phone.

Me: So you have an App Store?
Minder: Yes.
Me: Awesome! Can I see it?
Minder: No.

Oops! At this point, I was afraid I had crossed one of the many invisible lines in North Korea, and accidentally stepped into an Off Limits Zone.

Me: Oh, I’m sorry. Am I not allowed to see it?
Minder: No, it’s not that. It’s just not here.
Me: Not here? I don’t understand. Where is it?
Minder: Well, it’s a store. We would have to go there.
Me: Wait, your App Store is a physical store?? <pause, as I digest this incredible information> Can we visit one?
Minder: No, it’s not on our itinerary.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Their App Store was an actual place! You physically go to this place, ask a man behind the counter for the Mosquito Repellent app, pay him, and he plugs a cable into your phone and installs it for you! Mind officially blown.

While in North Korea, I also tried really hard to buy a local smartphone to bring back to the US. However, I apparently wasn’t allowed to, although no one would give me a straight answer about this. Instead, what I could have purchased was a North Korean SIM card for over $200 USD. This would have given me phone service within North Korea, and even spotty 3G data from time-to-time (at over $1 USD per megabyte). But even then, I’d be behind the North Korean firewall. So, good luck trying to access Gmail or Facebook.


Internet vs Intranet

As expected, there was no Internet.

However, there did appear to be a national Intranet. It didn’t seem like most citizens had access to this either, but a couple institutions we went to did seem to be wired in.

Primary school homepage in Pyongsong

One of these institutions was the primary school in Pyongsong. The first thing the headmistress showed us when we arrived was the school’s webpage. Yup, you heard me correctly. A webpage — complete with animated gifs and cheesy MIDI background music.

The website looked like something you would have found on Yahoo! GeoCities back in 2000. Here’s some video I took as some of the school administrators were demo’ing the webpage to us. Make sure you watch all the way to the end for the crazy surprise…

Demo of a primary school’s webpage in Pyongsong, North Korea

Didn’t make it all the way to the end of the video? Okay, I’ll tell you what happened. Towards the end of the demo, the administrator nonchalantly clicks on another app on the computer, and suddenly a grid of video thumbnails fills the screen.

Everyone’s jaw dropped when we saw this. We were staring at live video feeds of every classroom in the school. Crazy!

Video surveillance in every classroom at a primary school in Pyongsong

Here’s some video of this surveillance feed:

Live video feed of every classroom at a primary school in Pyongsong

During our tour of the primary school, the administrators made sure they showed us their computer room, which was comprised mostly of old Dell Latitude towers. The room was very empty.

Empty computer room in a primary school in Pyongsong

The Three Revolution Museum

Another destination our minders insisted on including in our itinerary was a visit to the Three Revolution Museum — a sprawling complex comprised of 5 or 6 massive exhibition halls. This is where North Korea celebrates the nation’s revolutionary advances in ideology, technology, and culture.

The best way to describe this place?

Imagine the Smithsonian Institute mashed up with Disney’s Epcot Center, but then stripped clean of any fun and truth
The Three Revolution Museum

Inside, we walked past exhibit after exhibit that shocked and awed. There was an enormous replica of a CNC machine, a towering rocket, and even a miniature model of the country’s nuclear reactors (yikes!).

Exhibits inside the Three Revolution Museum

And the grand finale in this hodge-podge collection of technological bric-a-brac? Around the corner from the nuclear reactor, we found ourselves staring at a display of old school, corded telephones. Yup.

A display of landline phones at The Three Revolutions Museum

And just to further add to the surrealism of this trip, we were the only people in the entire museum. When we arrived, all the power in the building had been switched off (I assume to conserve electricity). So, as we wandered the museum halls, a woman would walk in front of us, and flip on power switches for each exhibit one by one. We certainly felt very VIP.

To get an even better sense of this place, check out this video tour I shot from inside the museum:

Tour the inside of North Korea’s Three Revolution Museum

War

The looming specter of war is ever-present in North Korea

The DMZ

For a country that is officially at war with its sister nation just to the south, the threat of conflict is very real in North Korea. And nowhere is this risk of war more palpable than at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

The drive from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the border city at the DMZ, is 3 hours long — placing Pyongyang twice as far from a potential border battle, compared to Seoul, which is less than a 90 minute drive away.

The drive down to Panmunjom was really interesting. The highway was 6 lanes wide, and yet the road was almost completely devoid of cars for the entire 3 hour drive. We mostly just saw people biking and walking along the edge of the asphalt. The only other vehicles we saw were military jeeps and an occasional bus or two.

A six lane-wide highway with not a car in sight

As we got closer to the DMZ, the military checkpoints got more and more frequent, and the soldiers at these checkpoints looked more and more fierce. Each time we approached one, our minders would emphatically remind us not to take any pictures.

One fascinating thing: every mile or two, the North Korean army had erected giant concrete towers by the side of the road. Some of these were thinly disguised as monuments. But these towers served a much more significant purpose. Should the South Koreans ever break across the border and march north, the North Koreans would blow up the base of these towers, causing them to topple over onto the road and block the advance of South Korean tanks.

Concrete tank blockades disguised as monuments

When we arrived at the DMZ, the air was electric. The name Demilitarized Zone is really a misnomer. This was one of the most militarized places I’ve ever seen. Security was super tight. We were escorted by soldiers single-file around the compound.

The Demilitarized Zone was, ironically, very heavily militarized
Map of the DMZ (left); North Korean soldiers at the DMZ (right)

The Bombing Run

During our drive back from the DMZ to Pyongyang, we were passing through some farmland when we saw a small biplane approach from the west. I rushed to the window of our shuttle and managed to grab a couple pictures of the plane as it flew right over us.

Military biplane flying overhead

As the plane pulled away from us, I stopped taking photos, but continued to watch the plane. Suddenly, I saw a black object drop from the bottom of the aircraft. My first immediate thought was that the plane was dropping an aid package to the farming village below. Seriously. My second thought was that this was some kind of a mail drop.

Both of those theories went out the window when the black object lit up midair, and rocketed straight into the earth below, leaving behind a fiery contrail. Before I could realize what was happening, a second rocket shot out from the bottom of the plane, again straight into the ground below.

Both rockets then exploded, launching a towering column of fire and smoke into the air.

We had just witnessed a bombing run!

The military was literally shooting missiles out of a biplane, less than one mile away from us! And by the looks of it, the locals were just as surprised as we were. You can see them all standing in the foreground of the picture below, staring at the smoky aftermath of the explosion.

The aftermath of two rocket explosions, less than one mile away from us

Our entire group was in shock. I turned to our minders, to see if they had anything to say about what just happened. They didn’t. They just stared straight ahead at the road as if nothing had happened.


The Korean War Museum

Another war-related visit on our trip was to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, or, as most people simply call it: the Korean War Museum.

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

This museum was more like a palace, complete with an enormous crystal chandelier, a marble staircase straight out of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, and a two story tall statue of King Il Sung greeting you as you walked into the lobby. I wish I could have taken photo of it for you, but cameras were strictly prohibited inside.

Our military guide was a rather intimidating, humorless soldier who spent most of her time elaborating on the evil and moral decrepitude of the American Imperialists. I really wanted to know how she rationalized the fact that she was delivering this speech to a group of, well, Americans.

Our rather intimidating military tour guide at the Korean War Museum

On display outside was a wide collection of damaged US warplanes and tanks.

Battered US warplanes and tanks at the Korean War Museum

You can get a closer look at these army artifacts in this video I took:

Tour of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

The biggest trophy at this museum was the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship that was attacked and captured in 1968. Our guide took us aboard, and pointed out, in painstaking detail, all the shrapnel holes the gallant North Korean sailors had shot into the hull of the ship. The pride was oozing from her voice.

The USS Pueblo, captured in 1968, and now on display at the Korean War Museum
Red circles indicate every shrapnel hole shot through the hull of the USS Pueblo (left); Sailor standing guard aboard the USS Pueblo (right)

Watch this video to hear how our military guide describes the capture of the USS Pueblo:

Tour of the USS Pueblo warship at the Korean War Museum

All of these tanks, planes, and ships on display outside, however, paled in comparison to what we were about to see inside the museum palace itself. We were whisked through room after room of lies and horrors. Perhaps the most over-the-top exhibit was a life-sized diorama depicting a macabre war scene where maimed American soldiers lay dead or dying on a scorched battlefield. A black crow stood atop the body of a dead solider in the center of the tableau, picking away at his heart.

We were all relieved to finally leave that place.


The Military Parade

During our visit, the country was preparing for a massive celebration: the 70th anniversary of its communist party. The festivities would take place on October 10, 2015, their Party Foundation Day, and would include the biggest military parade demonstration the country had ever staged.

Thousands and thousands of volunteers had been granted weeks of leave from work to rehearse for the enormous spectacle. Throughout the week, day and night, we saw masses of people lined up in formation, practicing their marching routines over and over again.

Rehearsing for the country’s massive Party Foundation Day celebration on October 10, 2015

The sheer scale of it all was both impressive and intimidating. And this was before they had even rolled out the tanks and antiballistic missiles!

Practicing marching formations for Party Foundation Day

Best Moments

Out of my entire week in North Korea, three moments in particular stood out as highlights. In all three cases, I found myself interacting with real locals in a way I never thought I would, and it was this human connection that made these experiences so special.


Singing in the Park

The first highlight took place one afternoon, as we were hiking in Moran Hill Park in Pyongyang. The park is located in the middle of the city, and is actually quite large in size — perhaps a quarter the size of New York’s Central Park? Much of the park is forested, and pretty hilly. Scattered throughout the park are grassy clearings where locals would gather and picnic.

North Koreans relaxing on a Sunday in Moran Hill Park

We visited on a Sunday, which was a day off for many North Koreans. As a result, there were lots of locals spread out throughout the park. At first, I was feeling a bit disappointed that we were wasting an afternoon trudging around a public park.

We tried smiling or saying hi to locals as we walked past, and most just ignored us. Some of the younger kids would giggle amongst themselves and then run off.

15 minutes into the hike, I saw group of North Koreans gathered in a clearing about 100 feet away. They weren’t very close to the path we were on, but their singing caught my attention. The men (who seemed just a bit drunk) had stripped off their soldier uniforms, and were dancing in their tank tops.

Amused, I danced back at them from the path. They saw me, and instead of ignoring me, they laughed and danced right back at me.

Ladies and gentlemen: we have a North Korean dance off!

After a couple minutes of this, they waved at me to come join them. This was awesome! I looked over at our minder, and she gave a nod. Woohoo!

Our newfound North Korean friends

Our group scrambled down a small hill, dodged through some trees, and joined the North Koreans in the clearing. For the next 15 minutes, we sang and danced with our new friends. Some of the locals seemed a bit uncomfortable with our presence, and stepped back. However, the men were really into it. We sang some Korean songs, including a famous folk song called Arirang. Well, the Koreans sang, and we did our best to fake it.

Singing Arirang — a traditional Korean folk song — with North Koreans
More singing and dancing with our newfound North Korean friends

Then, the Koreans motioned for us to sing something. I quickly wracked my brain and started singing the first inoffensive song that came to my head: “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Yup, what better way to bridge two warring nations, than a little Disney.

Without understanding a single word that I was saying, the Koreans happily danced to the music:

Singing and dancing to Disney songs with North Koreans

This was such a fun, beautiful, human moment. Sure, there’s always a chance that this entire experience was staged. In North Korea, you can never be sure. But I find it highly unlikely, given that there were thousands of people in the park that day, and how improbable it was that out of all those people, I would have picked this particular group of folks to do a dance-off.

Definitely one of the top highlights of my trip.

My North Korean singing partner at Moran Hill Park

The Mass Dance

My second trip highlight took place on the country’s National Day holiday (September 9, 2015). To celebrate, Mass Dances were held all over the country. A Mass Dance is basically when hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of Koreans dress up in their finest clothes, and gather in a public space for synchronized dancing.

That afternoon, we went to watch the largest Mass Dance in Pyongyang. There were well over 1,000 locals gathered here. The tableau was really stunning. A seemingly endless expanse of multi-colored hanbok dresses transformed the public square into a floral rainbow of colors and movement.

Like many things in North Korea, the event was very rehearsed. Between songs, the Koreans would line up like soldiers in a perfectly regimented grid. They would stand there silently, staring forward, waiting for the next song to begin. It was honestly a bit unnerving.

Dancers at the 9.9.15 Mass Dance, waiting for the music to begin

Also, I barely saw anyone smiling, even during the dancing. I got the sense that some of the folks may have been there more out of obligation than choice.

Beautiful colors, but not a lot of smiles at the 9.9.15 Mass Dance

However, the Mass Dance was still such a unique experience to behold. And then things got even more fun when we were told that we could join in if we wanted to. Most of the tourists held back, but our group happily jumped in.

I asked one of the friendlier-looking dancers if I could cut in, and she shyly agreed. The dance moves were relatively straight-forward, and I did my best to blend in without stepping on my partner’s toes:

Joining in on the 9.9.15 Mass Dance in Pyongyang
Before I knew it, I was engulfed in a swirling whirlwind of people and fabric
Dancers in the 9.9.15 Mass Dance

It was thrilling to be so easily accepted into this massive, colorful event, and even more thrilling (and unexpected) to find myself dancing with a North Korean stranger. None of this was even remotely close to what I had expected when I first signed up to come here.


Freedom Walk

The final trip highlight took place earlier that same day, on September 9. As I mentioned before, we were almost never allowed to walk around outside on the streets. I can only assume that this was to minimize any chances of us having illegal contact with the locals.

However, after a couple days of building trust and good will with our minders, they gave us permission to do a short walk outside in Pyongyang. We would still have to stick together as a group, and we would only be walking for about 10 blocks. But let me tell you something: for those 10 blocks, the air never smelled sweeter, and the sun never shone brighter.

For two days, we had been essentially cooped up and held prisoner in our hotel and shuttle bus. And now, for the next 15 minutes, we could roam the streets like normal people (almost). On this day, I learned:

You can’t fully appreciate freedom until you’ve lost it

During our walk, I got to peer into windows, peek into storefronts, and mingle amongst everyday life in the DPRK.

Father and daughter (left); Street food (right)

Here’s some video I shot of the walk. Watch all the way to the end, if you want to see one of the world famous North Korean traffic ladies in action:

Walking the streets of Pyongyang

Hope

9 out of 10 people we saw in North Korea steered clear of us. However, making that occasional connection with the remaining 10% was so much fun. Sometimes, a smile would be returned, or, if we were really lucky, a wave. Almost all the time, these exchanges would be with kids or students.

Exchanging smiles in North Korea

I suppose it’s not too surprising that children and teenagers were far friendlier and more curious, compared to the adults. Perhaps they hadn’t been fully-indoctrinated by propaganda yet. Perhaps the hardships of life hadn’t begun weighing down on their shoulders.

Whatever the reason, seeing this next generation of North Koreans gave me hope — hope that someday, change will come for the North Koreans. And when it does, their country, and the entire world, will be better for it.


Thanks for reading! For more pictures and stories from my adventure in North Korea, you can follow me on Instagram and Facebook. For more videos, subscribe to my channel on YouTube.

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)